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 The blues is a low-down, aching chill; if you ain't never had 'em, I hope you never will.

Robert Johnson

Blues, aka El Big Grandaddy of Rock and Roll, is a term used to denote a musical genre, but it has become slightly genericized and it can also be used to describe musical works that don't belong to that genre but evoke aspects of it.

To Make a Long Story Short: The blues was largely created by African-American communities in the Deep South, following emancipation. The blues evolved from musical styles specific to those communities, such as spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, and chants, by shifting the focus from the group to the individual. The first published blues song was "Dallas Blues" by Hart Wand, in 1912, although there are reportedly older songs. The genre then went on to split into many, many subgenres according to location, giving rise to:

  • Country blues
  • Urban blues
  • Piedmont blues (relying on ragtime-based fingerpicking techniques)
  • Memphis blues (much more danceable, influenced by jug bands)
  • Boogie-woogie

and others.

While "blues" originally referred to any and all secular music made by black Americans, it eventually became a heavily codified genre, largely thanks to Trope Codifier Robert Johnson. Some elements which you'll find in most blues songs are:

  • The twelve-bar chord progression
  • Licks and solos in the pentatonic scale, with heavy use of "blue notes" (the flattened third, fifth and seventh of the associated major scale)
  • "Shuffle" or "swing" rhythm rather than "straight" rhythm (explained in this video)
  • Lines of lyrics that are repeated twice (often with a 'you know' or 'oh, Lord!' thrown in the second time), then followed by another line which rhymes with it and isn't repeated
  • Lyrics about lost love, poverty, and "hard times" in general, often full of Stock Phrases like 'woke up this morning' or 'wring my hands and cry'.

The most important development in the genre was the appearance of electrified blues in The Fifties, with its stronghold in Chicago. Electric blues, as represented by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and others, was one of the first genres to adopt electric guitars and the classic guitar-bass-drums lineup, paving the way for the future appearance of Rock and Roll. Jazz is another genre which developed out of the blues. In fact, most popular music as we know it today - from Soul and Funk to Heavy Metal - ultimately derives from the blues, the exception being Electronic Music. As Willie Dixon put it, 'The blues is the roots, the rest is the fruits.'

Another form of the genre appeared in The Sixties - Blues Rock.

Famous performers:

  • Robert Johnson (the guy who was rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil for talent)
  • Reverend Gary Davis (blind Baptist minister)
  • Blind Willie Johnson (also a blind Baptist minister, and judging by his voice a huge influence on Tom Waits)
  • Lonnie Johnson (one of the first blues guitarists to go electric)
  • Tommy Johnson (popularised the crossroads myth before Johnson; also, Canned Heat took their name from a song of his)
  • Charlie Patton (arguably the first great recorded Delta bluesman)
  • Booker T. Washington "Bukka" White (slide guitarist, cousin of B.B. King)
  • Elmore James (one of the first great electric slide guitarists, popularised Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom")
  • Son House (excellent early slide guitarist, though perhaps most famous for teaching Robert Johnson)
  • Memphis Minnie (the first great female blues guitarist...)
  • Bessie Smith (...and the first great (arguably) female blues singer)
  • Barbecue Bob
  • Blind Willie McTell (one of the great blind bluesmen, notable for his distinctive voice and Piedmont style)
  • Blind Boy Fuller (the first really successful acoustic bluesman)
  • Blind Blake (a hugely influential ragtime guitarist)
  • Blind Lemon Jefferson (another blind bluesman, apparently had a habit of wearing spectacles if the publicity photo is to be believed)
  • Lead Belly (Nirvana's favourite, as well as perhaps the most influential American musician ever)
  • Ma Rainey (a very early female blues singer, had a big influence on Bessie Smith and others)
  • Howlin' Wolf (one of the many fine artists contracted to Chess back in the day, notable for a voice you could sand with)
  • Muddy Waters (another Chess artist, had a massive influence on electric blues, perhaps most famous these days for the "Hoochie Coochie Man" riff)
  • Willie Dixon (the greatest blues songwriter of all time, especially during the early electric era; wrote most of Howlin' Wolf's material)
  • B.B. King (the finest blues guitarist still alive as of writing)
  • Bo Diddley (a key player in the transition from electric blues to rock and roll)
  • Buddy Guy (the big blues guitarist of the 60s in America, as well as one of the pioneers of "heavy" electric blues guitar; had a big impact on Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton)
  • Albert King (another pioneer of heavy electric guitar; his solos were revolutionary for their day)
  • John Lee Hooker (one of the few to smoothly transfer his Delta style to the electric guitar; notable for his one-chord songs and his "talking" vocal style)
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